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The Art of Ugly

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 2, January/February 2013
pp. 11-12 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0020

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“Art sustained you till it killed you,” declares one of the narrator’s in Debra Spark’s new collection The Pretty Girl, featuring a novella of the same name followed by six short stories. Each piece poses big questions about the nature of art and of the artist, of the sometimes wide and sometimes slim gap between appearance and reality.

Most of the characters are artists. There is a painter, a playwright, an art historian, an art director and an art restorer, a costume designer, a photographer, a comic book artist, a tombstone engraver. Even in the stories where art is on the periphery, its tools—imagination and invention—are the organic defenses against fear, discontent, or flat-out unhappiness.

Nearly all of the players in The Pretty Girl are plagued with something painful—unattractiveness, poverty, unfulfilled desire, illness, madness—that makes them vulnerable and susceptible to either their own fantasies or those of their friends, acquaintances, family members, or lovers. Spark weaves the same themes in different threads throughout the stories, and most of the time, recognizing the echoes is part of the pleasure of reading this book.

Dana, the art restorer in “Conservation”—“I patch up old pictures”—sees her marriage as “an argument about the relative merits of what you did in the world versus how you lived in the world,” an observation that parallels the potentially destructive yearnings it produces in the same way that the landlord’s wife in “The Revived Art of the Toy Theatre,” who seems content in her union, imagines kissing the tenant who claims to hate her. In “I Should Let You Go,” Ginny, an art director for mail-order catalogs, attends a play that threatens the very foundation of her relationship with her cousin Cara, a costume designer who is dying of cancer; this same kind of revelation is mirrored in “Lady of the Wild Beasts” in the parallel experiences of Sharon making sense of her schizophrenic twin sister Jane and the cartoonist Hayden, who is (re)creating Jane’s life story in print.

A by-product of the artistic life, the outsider, is a recurring theme in this book, but Spark is also interested in how this figure collides with the inevitable world. In “Chocolate Mice,” Monica, a naive farm girl who “had a large, turnip-shaped head, with a sprouting of reddish hair at the top…was always chewing on some part of herself,” and who had “a rough mannishness, despite the large breasts which she tried to flatten beneath a harness-like bra” has hopes and dreams for a better life outside of rural Switzerland. So she follows a friend to Paris, but when she cannot find her, she is forced to navigate the city alone. She endures a series of horrific circumstances until she is saved by a millionaire and goes from being a poor starving farm girl to a wealthy married society maven, based on what she thinks is an act of fate. But this is not your prototypical Cinderella story; with its very dark and clever twists and turns, what happens in “Chocolate Mice” reveals Spark’s complex mind and her meticulous attention to plot, as well as her fascination with the innocence of isolation and the evil that may await those who venture outside of it.

Where innocent Monica goes from isolation to a cruel community that betrays her, a more subtle yet perhaps more sinister clash between good and evil occurs in “The Lady of the Wild Beasts.” The story opens with the information that artist Jane had a psychotic break—“the tiny cartoon men with beards and wisdom who decorated the edges of all her notebooks…got up off the page, shimmied down a table leg, and bussed her cafeteria tray for her. That’s right, a full-fledged schizophrenic break”— but focuses on how her twin sister, Sharon, deals not only with Jane’s demise but with how to reconcile it inside her own more ordinary life, “housewifedom.”

Good fat Sharon Berger is afraid of dogs yet ends up having to stay at the home of a friend with the friend’s skinny neighbor Mariah, who eats the Cheerios and...

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